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Published: 2003/12/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Unsilent Night, New York City, NY- 12/13

NYC ROLL-TOP: Unsilent Night, 2003

On December 13th, Phil Kline staged the 11th annual performance of his
orchestral boombox processional, Unsilent Night, in Manhattan's
Greenwich Village. As in previous years, participants gathered shortly
before 7 pm at the arch in Washington Square Park, checking the batteries in
their boomboxes and picking up their tapes from Kline. On the composer's
count, people hit "play" on their tape decks, and Kline's chiming ambient
piece began to rise peacefully from the assembled speakers. He led the group
towards the center of the Park.

Feeding into the crowd was a contingent of folks dressed as Santa, remnants
of SantaCon, another bizarre holiday tradition whereby hundreds of people
don Santa outfits and rampage about drunkenly. The previous year, the
Unsilent Nighers and the SantaConners had stumbled upon one another
(presumably for the first time), and it seemed like a match made in, well,
lower Manhattan. This year, the Santas showed up early, like a
semi-permanent addition to the event. L
ast December's Unsilent Night had been my first. It was an utterly
magical experience, almost literally, music overtaking the real world
(instead of simply being performed from a stage or reproduced on a stereo).
I was curious as to how I would perceive the piece this year. Last December,
it had all seemed so fresh, so spontaneous, even though it was Kline's 10th

Thankfully, the music was still transcendent. It still moved from section to
minimalist section with ease as arrangements for the different boomboxes
nestled up one another. But it also began to grow as an objectively
conceived piece of music — something that might've been created (or, at
least, refined) with some amount of forethought. The sight of a few hundred
people marching down the street with boomboxes aloft suddenly seemed very
dated. Boomboxes themselves are still omnipresent in Manhattan, though not
as much as they once were. Where, in the '80s and early '90s, they seemed
like a standard prop of a street scene, they have since receded into the
recesses of bodegas, where they blast Latin music. Their absence casts a bit
of light on Unsilent Night as a piece of music conceived during a
specific cultural moment as a comment on the technology's once ubiquitous

Kline followed precisely the same path as last year, as well (and,
presumably, the years before that): through the park, across the park, east
on Washington Place, south on Broadway, east on 4th Street, north on
Lafayette, east on St. Mark's, south on 3rd Avenue, east on 6th Street,
north on 2nd Avenue, east on 7th Street, and on into Tompkins Square Park.
In a way, this might be seen as a physical score for the piece with some
elements remaining exactly the same from performance to performance, and
some changing, as if with improvisation or chance. For example, Kline led
the group carefully around the fountain in Washington Square Park, an
unmoving Manhattan fixture. This path had the effect of making the line of
boomboxes bend and curve in a particular way, causing the sound to double
back on itself in a curious manner. (Later, zigzagging paths in Tompkins
Square Park created a similar-but-different effect.)

Other elements of the piece were less fixed. By walking the same path each
year, one also gets to view the surface of the city rise and fall. Because
part of the experience of Unsilent Night is a physical, sensory one,
the city is just as an important part of the experience as the music. One of
the highlights last year was walking through Astor Place past a lot full of
Christmas trees and smelling intoxicating pine trees. This year, the lot had
turned into a wall-in construction site (as of yet undeveloped), the city
about to change before our eyes. Next year, of course, it will be different.

Likewise, despite the fact that the piece is performed via recorded tapes,
the music itself was subject to variation. Boomboxes are unwieldy
technology. They take a lot of batteries, and drain them fairly swiftly.
Likewise, they're old technology, motors subject to slow and decay.
There were likely minute changes in the pitch and delivery of Kline's music.
Further, there is also the effect of how many people actually show up, as
well as the ratio of how many people actually bring boomboxes to how many
just show up (like me) to absorb the sound. This year, there seemed to be
less active participants and more listeners, which led to a sparser
performance of the piece than I remembered from the previous year.

Unsilent Night is a fantastically durable piece
of music, conceived with a rigid enough structure that it qualifies as a
piece of art, but flexible enough to change and mutate with each
performance. I'd love to experience it in other environments, and am curious
as to how it might have gone over in the other cities where it was performed
this year.

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